Flinders Ranges: Jagged beauty

By Quentin Chester 1 June 2009
Reading Time: 12 Minutes Print this page
New ways to enjoy the Flinders Ranges’ ancient grandeur.

WHAT’S A BLOKE FROM Switzerland doing looking after 355 sq. km in the heart of the Flinders Ranges? That’s the question I’m itching to ask Stony Steiner as we sit around his homemade cypress table in the shearers’ quarters at Warraweena. Since 1996 this one-time sheep station has been run as a private conservation park. Stony bowled up as a volunteer in the late ’90s, was appointed manager in 2001, and with wife Gina and daughters Nadine and Selena has made his home on the ranges.

Originally from Oberiberg, a small mountain town an hour from Zurich, Stony first met Gina during a trip to Australia in 1988. After a long-distance romance they got together and Gina took her man to see the Flinders. For Stony, it wasn’t love at first sight. “I was bit disappointed,” he recalls. “I looked up at these hills and said, ‘You call those mountains’?” But after a few days the freedom of the place got to him. “The trouble is Switzerland is such a small country, people are so confined and everything is known and researched. Out here, though, it’s a real frontier and I just love the space.”

This enthusiasm powers Stony’s one-man mission to give Warraweena’s biodiversity a helping hand. He’s reinvented the property, opening it up for campers, walkers and off-road drivers. It’s low-key tourism, backed by a devotion to the land and the secrets it can yield. “Once you know how old the mountains are and all the connections between plants and animals, and how well preserved everything is, it’s just fantastic,” Stony says. “There’s just so much here, so many things to explore.”

I know what he means. I’ve spent the past 40 years dipping into the ranges: walking, driving, exploring. Getting them out of my mind is not an option. Stony and I are not alone in this affliction. For generations the Flinders Ranges have ravished the eyes of painters and poets, filmmakers and photographers. The landscapes have visual punch, most strikingly the ripsaw-teeth ridges rearing up from the surrounding saltbush plains. There’s a splashy palette of colours too: cliffs in burnished orange and fiery reds, swathes of jade-green native pine, terracotta dirt and silver-grey saltbush.

Yet the lure of this country runs deeper than surface attraction. There are highlights aplenty – most famously the freakish ellipse of peaks that form Wilpena Pound (Ikara) – but no destination says it all. Instead, this is a landscape just begging to be travelled. As you roll northwards, the back roads dip and rise through the hills. They swoop into rocky creekbeds and snake along tight gorges. It’s like a show ride, a colossal roller-coaster. And all the while the ranges unfold before your eyes.

That’s how I remember my first visit back in the early 1960s. Being the youngest, I was wedged between Mum and Dad on the vinyl bench seat in the front of our two-tone EK Holden wagon. The old bus swayed and juddered along the tracks. Mum clung on anxiously while Dad wrestled with the steering wheel and my brothers and sister whooped it up in the back. I gazed up through the windscreen, gripped by the sight of giant river red gums arching shoulder to shoulder over the creeks and the strange, bare-knuckled peaks jostling for the sky.

Discovering the Flinders

So began for me a long, sideways look at the story behind the scenery. Like the ranges themselves, its narrative is full of leaps and turns. Among other things the Flinders presents itself as a bridge to the interior, tempting travellers from the coast to meet the mystery and expanse of the outback. The further north you go, the deeper you forage back in time.

The good news is that this story is much more accessible than it was in the 1960s. Every year brings new opportunities for visitors to walk and camp, to listen to the locals and savour a feeling of a place no postcard can capture. Up close, the antiquity of the place seems inescapable. So too the ties to this country upheld by the Adnyamathanha, the people of the rocks – descendants of the eight original Aboriginal cultural groups in the region.

Many early European visitors simply recoiled from the harshness of the place. For others it was a place of dashed hopes – no-one more so than Matthew Flinders, the great navigator after whom the ranges are named. In the first week of March 1802, HMS Investigator sailed north into a narrowing gulf on the then unknown southern coast of Terra Australis. The goal of the voyage was to find an inland sea, or at least some waterway that might penetrate the interior of the continent. But after weeks of sailing, and much speculation, the dreams of Flinders and his crew ended up mired in mudflats at the head of Spencer Gulf.

The sight of a mountain range to the east did little to soften the blow. A shore party struggled to the highest point, now called Mt Brown. When they reached the top all they spied was “dead, uninteresting flat country” – the Willochra Plain. The mighty ranges just beyond were hidden in the shadows of dusk. Even 37 years later, Governor Gawler was none the wiser when he named this ridge the Flinders Range. It would take another two decades to unravel the landscape knot. Today the Flinders consists of more than 40 named ranges and many others equally deserving of a title.

The Flinders fossils

Flinders was half a billion years too late. From 800 million years ago (mya) until about 500 mya, Flinders theoretically could have sailed over the place where the ranges now stand and charted a course to the continent’s heart. Throughout this period, the sea flooded an immense trough called the Adelaide Geosyncline, which had been created by movement and sagging in the earth’s crust.

Over time, huge amounts of rock, silt and sand eroded from ancient highlands in the west and north-east washed into the subsiding geosyncline. Flinders would need to have timed his run: wild storms, surging currents, glaciers, meteorites and erupting volcanoes all played a part in the region’s genesis. By 500 mya the layers of accumulated sediments had been crunched and compacted into bands of rock up to 15 km deep. More movements deep in the earth’s crust then shunted these layers into folded mountains, before they too were ravaged by the elements, with masses of material stripped from towering peaks to expose a battered backbone of ridges and rocky remnants. Though episodes of uplift continued, the essential features of the Flinders Ranges have, according to some geologists, remained unchanged for 60 million years. It survives as one of the world’s oldest and best-preserved mountain realms.

In this geological library, each range is an open book, the pages inscribed with graphic tales from a rocky past. Drive Brachina Gorge’s Geological Trail and in 20 km you eyeball a sequence of rock formations 9 km thick and spanning 150 million years. Evidence of the region’s oceanic history is scattered throughout the ranges in sandstone slabs embossed with the unmistakable corrugations of a tidal shoreline. Even more telling are the imprints of distant ancestors – yours and mine.

On a low rise in the west of the ranges, SA Museum palaeontologist Dr Jim Gehling dabs a knob of pink playdough onto an upturned slab of sandstone. “This is Parvancornia minchami,” says Jim, lifting the knob to reveal an impression of an anchor-shaped creature not much bigger than the head of a pencil. “There are 90 specimens on this single surface – that’s more than we have in the museum.” These dinky fossils are cast members of the earliest multi-cellular animal show on earth, first discovered in the Ediacara Range in 1946 by Reg Sprigg, a government geologist and later pioneer of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

Nearly half a century later Reg’s chance find hit the big time when the International Union of Geological Sciences announced the Ediacaran Period was to be slotted into the geological time scale – the first such addition in 120 years. Covering the span of time from 630 to 542 million years ago, it recognises the evolutionary breakthrough when empires of Ediacarans colonised the seabed. More than 80 species have now been identified across 31 sites worldwide.

The Flinders fossils are miraculously preserved on the undersides of sandstone layers. At the current site, Jim and fellow researchers have spent months excavating, inverting and cleaning 150 sq. m of rock. This knee-grinding toil has turned up an astonishing array, including Dickinsonia rex, a giant flatworm-like animal nearly 1 m long. There’s also a 6 cm fossil thought to be the world’s first animal to have a backbone. For Jim the thrill of discovery is undimmed: “It’s just amazing to turn over a piece of rock and find something that hasn’t seen the light of day for 560 million years.”

Droughts and flooding rains

Water remains the force of change in the Flinders. The place can appear dry for years at a stretch, yet be transformed by a single cloudburst. Since 1996 much of the region has endured below-average rainfall. But in January this year the township of Hawker copped a monthly record of 174 mm, the bulk of it crashing down in a 24-hour period. These localised storms turn empty creeks into bullying torrents, stranding motorists and startling campers who dare to be creek-dwellers.

Guidebooks talk about the ranges extending a “finger of higher rainfall into the arid zone”. The past 150 years have shown it to be the most fickle of fingers, with fateful results. By 1860, sheep runs were established along the length of the Flinders. The good seasons ended with the great drought of 1863–66. Some 700,000 sheep were lost. Many pastoralists faced ruin. Another wave of optimism surged during the following decade as farmers pushed to establish wheat crops across the vast Willochra Plain north to Hawker and beyond. This frontier expansion stumbled during the early 1880s. Many settlers clung on, only to face drought and falling wheat prices in the late 1920s. Stone ruins of towns and farms still dot the plains. Larger pastoral holdings in the north fared better, particularly during the 1950s wool boom, but have still struggled at times.

Dust storms, eroded creeks, weed invasions, rabbits and goats running amok – the cost of working the land too hard was plain to see as far back as the 1880s. A century later and the balance sheet showed Mother Nature was deep in the red. Twenty-nine of the Flinders region’s 52 mammal species had become extinct. Entire plant communities were degraded. Many traditional sources of food and shelter were scarce. Mercifully, the past 40 years have seen a significant de-stocking across the ranges, with eight major properties transferring to national park or private reserve. But more was needed to repair the damage.

Restoring the ecology of the Flinders

On the doorstep of Wilkawillina Gorge, conservation ranger Matt Kennewell folds his tall frame so he’s on all fours beside a saltbush plant no bigger than his fist. “See this new growth here, that’s what we’re looking for,” he says, proudly tickling a slight thickening of a stem. “That strength will see this guy through the tough times.” It might seem small beer but one glance at the eroded banks of nearby Mount Billy Creek shows the value of revegetation to the health of these plains.

Matt’s the kind of strapping bloke who might have thrown himself into farming the Willochra Plain 130 years ago. In the new dawn for the Flinders he’s an avid frontline soldier for Bounceback, a program that sprang to life in 1992 to revive the health of the land. Playing nursemaid to tiny shrubs and perennial grasses is just one part of the job. Matt and his fellow rangers are also busy knocking out introduced predators like foxes and cats, and curbing the grazing impact of rabbits and goats. To date the program has bundled more than 100,000 goats out of the Flinders. Rabbit control is ongoing and received a major fillip with the accidental release of the calicivirus in 1995.

Popular support for Bounceback owes much to its poster boy, the yellow-footed rock-wallaby. Beautifully marked and coy by nature, they’re a marvel in motion, bopping across their cliff-face hideouts. Mobs of yellow-footed rock-wallabies 50 and 60 strong were regularly spotted during the 1850s. But after decades of being hunted for their skins and stiff competition from feral interlopers, their future was at risk. The steadfast work of Bounceback has seen an estimated sevenfold increase in their numbers in Flinders Ranges National Park alone. On the back of this success, the program – a partnership of parks, reserves and landholders on more than 30 stations – now looks to restore the ecology of the entire region.

The Flinders holds its own rhythms of change and renewal. Drought gives way to scouring rains. Gorges rush with water and the debris of ancient rocks. New growth flourishes. Waterholes brim and glint again. The hidden jewels in this landscape, the quiet heroes in its story, are the refuges of gorge and waterhole. Through the hard times they have sustained a richness of plants and animals – yellow-footed rock-wallabies included. And for tens of thousands of years they have been great founts of indigenous life and lore.

The resilience of the Adnyamathanha owes much to a rock-solid connection with the northern Flinders. After many tough decades their struggle for recognition is being fulfilled. In 1998 members of the Nepabunna community took over management of Nantawarrina, a 58,000 ha property that became Australia’s first Indigenous Protected Area. Next door at Iga Warta, a branch of the Coulthard family have become cultural tourism pioneers. Perhaps most significant of all, in 2005 the Adnyamathanha secured a landmark agreement to co-manage the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park.

Since early 2006, Arthur Coulthard has worked side by side with fellow senior ranger Danny Doyle to look after this wild stretch of plateau and gorge. Bright-eyed Arthur knows the terrain. In fact he was born on the park’s doorstep in Italowie Gap. “I left school in 1988 – the next day I started work with National Parks,” he says with a wry grin. Solid stints in the Bounceback program and work as an interpretive ranger at Wilpena grounded him in ways to tend the land and bring Adnyamathanha culture to the fore. The chirpy banter he enjoys with Danny is backed by a resolve to make their partnership work. “When we have problems we sit down and talk them through,” Arthur says. “It’s about sharing and I reckon this agreement is the best shot we’re going to have.”

Tourism in the Flinders Ranges

Opportunities to share in the landscape are opening up along the Flinders as never before. When wool prices slumped, Willow Springs, like many pastoral properties, faced its own struggle for survival. The Reynolds family has been working this rugged country east of Flinders Ranges National Park for 80 years. After a bushfire swept through in 1991, Brendan Reynolds decided to build a new track along the high crest of Mt Caernarvon to help with mustering. During long hours on the bulldozer he got the brainwave of linking a maze of old mining and station tracks to form a circuit.

Four years later ‘Skytrek’ was born: 60 km of heart-pumping 4WD track that rides the peaks and hollows of The Bunkers and the Loves Mine Range. “When we started I used to think, ‘I’m just a sheep farmer, what do I know about tourism?’,” Brendan says. “I guess we learned on the job – we haven’t looked back.” More than 1000 vehicles, including off-road enthusiasts and family groups, now get their thrills in the hills of Willow Springs each year. Meanwhile, Brendan and wife Carmel get to keep the farm and earn a few extra bob from travellers staying in their spruced-up farm cottages.

Word gets around. Skytrek’s success has seen similar knockabout tracks open up on 17 other properties all along the Flinders. Toss in the existing network of public back roads weaving through the hills and you have close to 2000 km of adventure driving. With bush ingenuity and little fuss a few hard-up farmers have helped turn the Flinders Ranges into arguably Australia’s most accessible patch of rugged outback – all you need is a 4WD and a head for heights.

Tourism is nothing new to the Flinders region and bushwalkers have long known about the area’s assets. As well as some 500 km of marked tracks, there’s plenty of wilderness walking for more experienced hands.

The Rasheed family has been welcoming holidaymakers to their famous Wilpena Pound Resort since the early 1960s. However, the travellers’ menu grows more diverse each year – everything from bunking down in bush huts and shearers’ quarters, to the Prairie Hotel’s outback flavours and fully hosted stays at Arkaba and Angorichina homesteads. At Rawnsley Park, Tony and Julie Smith have recently added ‘eco-villas’ to their mix of accommodation. Perched on a rise with priceless views of Wilpena Pound (Ikara) and the Elder Range, these swish new digs are a far cry from the modest cabin Clem Smith kicked off with in 1968.

“Interest in the Flinders seems to be really picking up,” Tony says. “The market is changing. People want to get out and experience the place, drive the tracks and get on mountain bikes. And we’re starting to see a lot more overseas people too.” The region’s tourism renewal may be more than good business. It also carries the promise of keeping people on the land, families and farmers with generations of knowledge who can take new pride in showing off their patch – the landscapes they are helping to revive.

Top end

Keep pushing north among the ranges and you bump smack into Arkaroola. Here the threads of the Flinders story converge in a glorious tangle of ridge and ravine. Reg Sprigg first visited the area in 1940 as a young geology student in the thrall of his professor, Sir Douglas Mawson.

From day one Reg was enraptured with Arkaroola and its jumble of granites, sedimentary and volcanic rocks, and uranium-bearing minerals. When the property eventually came onto the market in 1967 he snapped it up. Few people could have grasped the vision he and wife Griselda had for such a remote frontier. Years ahead of their time, they soon had a tourist “village” and intrepid 4WD ridge-top tours. Over the next two decades they blazed their own path for wilderness tourism, conservation and open-air science. Yet for all their quirky style, Reg and Griselda showed what could be done with a rough gem of an idea and oodles of energy.

Today, the next Sprigg generation – daughter Marg and son Doug – are busy keeping the Arkaroola dream alive. Meanwhile the scientific wheel has come full circle with nearby new mining and energy projects that go to the nub of the geology celebrated by Mawson and his protégés. With his long background in mining and fervour for practical science, how would Arkaroola’s founder react to these developments? Marg is in no doubt: “I think Dad would be smiling…he would have just loved it.” However, she and Doug are far less sure about any mining activity that might encroach into the high country. “The habitats up there are very special and fragile; they deserve protection,” Marg notes.

A few minutes aloft over Arkaroola makes this concern impossible to ignore. No-one knows the sky above the ranges better than Doug. He and his Cessna 207 have together clocked up 6400 hours, most of it in Arkaroola’s crystal-clear airspace. We climb over the crest of Freeling Heights, then circle Mawson Plateau, its surface studded with granite and glinting waterholes. In 1976, the year Doug bought his Cessna, I walked the country below for the first time. Those seven days changed my life. Like my childhood ride in the family Holden, and this soaring flight with Doug, they turned another page in the story I can’t stop trying to tell.


Source: Australian Geographic Oct – Dec 2007